The first step to protecting the world from its many dangers

Summary: The daily news bombards us with stories about severe risks to us and the world. Countless well-meaning special interest groups publish incendiary stories, which journalists uncritically repeat. We can’t afford to prevent or mitigate them all, so we do little or nothing. Here’s a first step to rational action: list and describe each to see the big picture. Let’s start today! List your top fears in the comments, ranked high to low.

Supernova
Supernova; bad news if within 50 light-years of us.

Contents

  1. So many dangers.
  2. Doom fatigue.
  3. A solution.
  4. For More Information.

(1)  So many dangers

“Apocalyptic and misanthropic environmental narratives, as Clive Hamilton represents them, have had an important role in stirring up the public. But they have also contributed to widespread resignation and cynicism. So far, they have fallen short of mobilizing enough people to bring about real political change. ”

NYT Journalist Andy Revkin.

That’s the heart of the problem. The daily bombardment of doomsday warnings leaves people feeling helpless, with the natural result of ignoring all warnings. Worse, to cut through the noise scientists’ press releases become ever more shrill, with ever less context.

How many have we had this month? The over-the-top New Yorker about the doomed NW USA: “The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker — “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.”

That’s topped this week by James Hansen and 15 other climate scientists predicting (in the Huff Post’s words) “Catastrophic Rise In Sea Levels”, with “sea levels rising as much as 10 feet in the next 50 years.” For those who prefer journalism, the Washington Post notes that this is far above the IPCC’s likely projections, other climate scientists are skeptical, and the paper is not peer-reviewed. It’s also science by press release, with the hysterical headlines preceding publication of the paper.

Even that’s topped by this press release from the U of GA:  “Earth’s ‘battery’ draining too fast to sustain life” — “Unless humans slow the destruction of Earth’s declining supply of plant life, civilization like it is now may become completely unsustainable.”

Add these to the top of your pile of past warnings, such as … We face a world full of foes, from terrorist sleeper cells in your town to great powers bent on world conquest (China and Russia). But even our foes will go broke as the world’s resources are exhausted: peak oil, peak fresh water, even peak phosphorous.

Impact of comet or asteroid
It will happen again, eventually.

At least the collapse of the world economy and the following wars will remove our ability to further wreck the biosphere. No overpopulation. Of course, we will still suffer the effects of past chemical pollution (and subtle ones, like impotence from hormones in the water). Too bad about the coming mass species extinction; we’ll miss the animals (unless we build a space ark, as in the film “Silent Running“).

While we suffer from these ills we will bake amidst the floods and storms during the droughts from climate change. These will distract us from the natural disasters wrecking the world. A reversal of Earth’s magnetic field, mega-tsunamis that scour away the cities on our coasts (more here), and super-volcanoe eruptions (like Yellowstone).

For variety, the sun will hit us with another solar storm like the Carrington Event of 1859; the National Academy’s warning is terrifying (read the summary). This will knock out the world’s electronics, so we will not see the asteroid or comet that will destroy a continent (“The odds that a potentially devastating space rock will hit Earth this century may be as high as one in 10“).

Now for the bad news: as a result of all these things we will be too weak to deal with the coming super-plagues (in addition to the disease of the week, dozens of them, each afflicting 5 – 10%+ of the population).

Supervolcano
A super-volcano will erupt again.

(2)  The result: doom fatigue

The result of is public apathy. So many threats, of different kinds and different magnitudes and probabilities over different time horizons. Are we doomed? That’s a commonplace expression in posts and comments mentioning climate change. There are so many different kinds of doom in our future, often presented as certainties — and the remedies are costly and of uncertain effectiveness. Why bother doing anything to avoid them?

Plus, older adults remember past forecasts of certain doom. By now the world should have been wrecked by nuclear war, famine from over-population, resource exhaustion, poisonous pollution, bankruptcy of the government, satanic cults, and global cooling (science by press release in the 1970s). Those apocalypses passed us as surely as the Christian end-of-the-world predictions. Perhaps today’s forecasts of doom will prove false as well.

There are tools to help us put our risks in a useful operational context, allowing us to manage our fears and rationally allocated funds amongst them. Nothing will happen so long as special interest groups, each touting their own cause, dominate the news — and funding rewards the most successful fear-mongers. We’re all losers from their competition.

Fear: Sinatra

(3)  A solution

What is the cost of minimum prevention or mitigation of the “plausible worst case” for all these risks? Probably a lot more than we will spend. Perhaps more than we can afford to spend.

The precautionary principle provides analysis of individual threats, such as climate change, but it does not work well for full the universe of risks. The finance industry copes with this problem every day. Each security in a portfolio has its own range of risk exposures, but risk can be meaningfully assessed only at the portfolio level — compared to a risk budget. This is different than the risks a nation (or world) faces, but offers some useful ideas.

To provide Congress and the public with recommendations, the government could create a Commission (with staff, amply funded) to assess individual risk, with a brief analysis of each, applying a common analytical framework to rate each risk in terms of probability and impact. The results would provide a basis for discussion and further analysis, liberating us from the narrow perspectives of the special interest activists.

Let’s start today. List in the comments what you consider the most serious risks facing America, ranked high to low. Also, you might list the dollars per year you’d allocate to mitigation of each. US GDP is almost $18 trillion per year.  (This was suggested by Tony B. “ClimateReason” in a comment at Climate Etc.)

For More Information

Judith Curry (Prof of Atmospheric Science, GA Inst Tech) has written several useful posts about risks and uncertainty, such as these…

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change and Preparing for the future: should we be precautionary or proactionary?

For a more detailed look at today’s extreme weather

To learn more about the state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research).

The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change

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28 thoughts on “The first step to protecting the world from its many dangers

  1. It is quite obvious that the greatest threat today is Killer Bees. I remember growing up in the 1980s, and “killer bees” were presented as a serious, and perhaps existential threat, by the media. In fact, I remember seeing charts of their progress (oh no, the bees are now up to north Texas, its only a matter of time). While the bees have made great progress, the only solution is to build a 400 foot high wall around Staten Island. I suggest a tax on honey and Wallabees to fund it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zentar,

      That leads to a fascinating idea: list all the horrific threats that disturbed us in the past! I mention some in this post (my fav: satanic cults). It would be quite a long list, and would provide some much-need balance (humility) to the discussion.

      Like

    2. A short list of existential threats that I remember from when I was an impressionable youth and took the media seriously:

      1980s:
      1. Saddam Hussein (possible posing as the antichrist predicted by Nostradamus)–not really a threat;
      2. Libyan terrorists sneaking into the country through Canada to suicide bomb us–not really a threat;
      3. AIDS—a real threat that was/is addressed through real public health measures;
      4. Dungeons and Dragons–not a threat;
      5. Gangster Rap—not a threat;
      6. Heavy metal–not a threat;
      7. Satanic Cults–Very real threat that continues to this day;
      8. Japanese would buy up all our property and assets–Probably not a threat;
      9. Razor blades in candy–not a threat;
      10. Acid Rain–A real threat, addressed through tough regulations that idiots would love to roll back;

      1990s:
      1. Y2K–not a threat;
      2. Hole in the ozone–probably a threat;

      Liked by 2 people

    3. Zemtar,

      Thanks for that creative answer! It provides valuable perspective to see past threats, and realize how many turned out to be exaggerated (AIDS, not a threat to humanity), false alarms (Saddam, Libyan terrorists, Japan’s wealth), scams (Y2K), — or just urban legends (satantic cults, razer blades in candy).

      Like

  2. From Jeffnsails850, a comment posted at Climate Etc.

    ————————————

    1. Peak debt/unfunded pension obligations (believe that’s a hot topic on your side of the pond now too!).
    2. Economic growth.
    3. Stemming the expansion of violent extremism (which I believe can be accomplished mostly non-violently).
    4. Meeting the challenge of ushering developing nations into 21st century market economies (which is a tremendous opportunity, shame an entire political movement wants to do it with 18th century energy options when green 21st century options are available).
    5. A global initiative to shame, challenge and replace corrupt government- (no more babbling about how climate change “contributed” to the disaster we all watched the latest tin-pot dictator create).
    6. Rapid, global expansion of education opportunities (go Internet!) The only reason this is down at 6 is because you can’t actually do this and the next four without #5 and you can’t do number 5 if you aren’t economically and politically strong).
    7. Prioritizing safe drinking water and sanitation globally,
    8. Sharing agricultural advancements and best practices.
    9. Eradication of disease (which, I believe, along with #5 leads to family planning).
    10. Robust agreement on global nuclear non-proliferation.

    If I had to prioritize environmental issues- Ocean fisheries, particulate air pollution, water pollution and siltation. We know how to “solve” CO2 emissions, we’re just waiting for the left to accept it.

    If i had to prioritize science research: antibiotics and infectious diseases, genetics, computer sciences and robotics, nuclear R&D.

    Like

    1. Lets accept that many problems affecting the first world are quite likely to be different to those affecting the developing world and accept that good health and sufficient food and water are a given.

      From the perspective of someone living in Britain my chief concerns are;

      1 Real world terrorism-there are a lot of nasty people out there determined to take us back to the dark ages. They have money, modern technology and numerous followers in the west. There no longer seems to be a world policeman determined to tackle them

      2) State sponsored cyber terrorism deliberately targeted at key infrastructure. A concerted attack on our electrical systems, communications and banking amongst others could very quickly severely impact on modern life

      3) Private cyber terrorism executed by private individuals with a grudge against another individual or corporations or govt. They steal private files, financial information and now via the internet can hack into our vehicles.

      4) Housing, education and other trappings tend to be related to having a prosperous middle class with good jobs. These appear to be on the verge of being hollowed out by technology, govt and cheap migrant labour. The middle classes are the bedrock of a prosperous, settled and democratic society.

      6 Pensions-having enough money to live healthily and well after retirement.

      7 Real world events-giant volcanoes, comets, a Carrington event

      8 Having reliable, secure and cheap energy

      9 The possible demise of free speech. It is getting increasingly difficult to say anything without offending someone else

      10 The political establishment, many of whom appear to be in it for themselves, don’t appear to be too bright and have too much control over our lives

      11) General debt. The amount of govt and personal debt is surely unsustainable as Greece has found out. Directly related to that is cheap credit without which many younger people would immediately become insolvent.

      12) Increasing inability to think for ourselves unless connected to a device that gives us information. The internet and information technology is very much a double edged tool.

      What resources should or could be directed to staving off possible dangers? Some are rooted in society and money isn’t going to solve them. Things evolve.

      Greater resolve against terrorism should be fundamental-without stability the world can’t function

      Tackling debt requires greater discipline and a determination to face up to it. Increasing the federal budget every time it hits the agreed ceiling isn’t doing that

      I would put much greater resources into making our infrastructure much more robust, whether against weather or human malevolence or incompetence

      We seem to be moving away from cheap reliable energy in most of the world, as we seek renewables in order to combat ‘climate change’. The problem is that the latter isn’t in any of my lists.

      Spending less money on a virtually non existent problem might help us to solve other concerns

      tonyb

      Liked by 3 people

    2. A number of Zemtar’s threats that turned out to be false can be explained by Mencken

      ‘The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
      — H. L. Mencken

      However, if we look at 8) and substitute the word ‘foreign’ perhaps that threat still has currency? In particular for ‘foreign’ substitute ‘Chinese.’ You owe them an awful lot of money or they own an awful lot of your assets. Ironically you gave them the means to do so by exporting many of your jobs there, thereby reintroducing one of my concerns-the lack of well paid jobs that go towards sustaining a prosperous middle class-surely the bedrock of western democracies.

      tonyb

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This comment was posted in response to my comment at Climate Etc about the need to understand the full range of risks facing the Earth. OldFossil demonstrates how indoctrinated people react to heterodox solutions: close their minds and run away. It will be difficult to beat this as “best of thread”.

    Thanks for reminding me why I stopped subscribing to FM.

    My response:

    oldfossil, Perhaps you could explain to us why you disagree with my comment describing the textbook method of risk assessment — to allocate funds by a risk budget based on a broad perspective, rather than ad hoc evaluation of individual cases.

    He didn’t reply. This kind of person seldom does.

    Like

    1. Johnny,

      I suspect you are among the many feeling disaster fatigue!

      Mention of the “White Walkers” from “Game of Thrones” is relevant: they are a real threat, long-foreseen, yet the nations were unwilling to prepare for — to busy with their daily tasks (like their mutually destructive wars). Quite the parallel with our world.

      Like

  4. George Meredith MD says: “It’s About Planet Earth’s Wobble, Stupid!”

    To Modify Rising Sea Levels, restore the estuaries!

    Al Gore and Barack Obama and the rest of the tree huggers would have us believe that if we were to all drive these silly little Chevrolet Volts, plug in to some Rube Goldberg electric Windmill and eat bamboo shoots, that we could change global warming with its associated sea level rise. But we pragmatists know that this is not the case.

    Consider: because the planet Earth wobbles on its long axis over a 23,000 year cycle, its inhabitants must endure glacial and glacial melt cycles. Glacial and interglacial periods. For instance, our Western Atlantic shoreline was 65 miles east, 11,500 years ago. Witness the carbon dated walrus tusks that scallop boats have dredged up in the Norfolk Canyon. And in another 11,500 years, our mid Atlantic shoreline will once again be on Broad Street in what was once downtown Richmond, Virginia. …

    {see the full comment here}

    Like

  5. Excellent post. See also our paper “Dealing with complexity and extreme events using a bottom-up, resource-based vulnerability perspective” by Roger Pielke Sr., et al in Extreme Events and Natural Hazards: The Complexity Perspective, Geophysical Monograph Series, American Geophysical Union. (2012). Our abstract reads

    “We discuss the adoption of a bottom-up, resource-based vulnerability approach in evaluating the effect of climate and other environmental and societal threats to societally critical resources. This vulnerability concept requires the determination of the major threats to local and regional water, food, energy, human health, and ecosystem function resources from extreme events including those from climate but also from other social and environmental issues.

    After these threats are identified for each resource, then the relative risks can be compared with other risks in order to adopt optimal preferred mitigation/adaptation strategies. This is a more inclusive way of assessing risks, including from climate variability and climate change, than using the outcome vulnerability approach adopted by the IPCC.

    A contextual vulnerability assessment using the bottom-up, resource-based framework is a more inclusive approach for policy makers to adopt effective mitigation and adaptation methodologies to deal with the complexity of the spectrum of social and environmental extreme events that will occur in the coming decades as the range of threats are assessed, beyond just the focus on CO2 and a few other greenhouse gases as emphasized in the IPCC assessments.”

    .
    .
    FM Note: Roger Pielke Sr is an eminent climate scientist. See his entry at Wikipedia for details.

    Even more interesting is his entry at Skeptical Science (more accurately, skeptical of science) as a “climate misnformer”. Many of these insights they list were controversial at the time, but are now consensus science. For example, the central role of the oceans’ heat content in the global warming process, the offsetting melting of arctic sea ice and growth of antarctic sea ice, the “pause” or “hiatus” in warming since ~2000, the different trends in warming shown by the surface atmosphere and the lower troposphere datasets, and the stabilization of arctic sea ice since 2005 (excerpt for the extreme lows in 2011 & 2012).

    Like

  6. Nationally?
    * The water crisis in CA and the southwest seems real enough. It’s a very ordinary “tables and chairs” (i.e., purely material) problem. Those get solved, but someone has to do it? Also seems like there’s a tragedy-of-the-commons element to it, which is a reason for government involvement.
    * Coastal cities vs hurricane is an oldie. I’ve seen a couple of episodes of urban flooding. Besides NOLA, the US has been lucky. This one is very avoidable with some planning.
    * from the foreign conflict department, I’d say the it is our very own government’s habit of getting involved in faraway conflicts for questionable reasons, more often than not by arming the most aggressive group we can find who is willing to play along. This Funnels resources to extremists and systematically undermines what we would normally consider a “civilized” social order. Closely related is the way I think our foreign policy replaces rule-of-law with might-makes-right. Is it a deadly danger (for the US)? Not yet, but why wait until it is?
    * also from the foreign conflict department: nuclear war. Another oldie. Low risk, high impact?
    * lastly, the offshoring of the US industrial base, which is pretty near complete at this point.

    Globally
    * environmental sustainability in general
    * overpopulation
    * destructive things large powerful countries do in their more careless moments

    Things that aren’t deadly dangers but are pretty important to a decent life, which we could really do better at
    * education
    * health care

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wikipedia has a pretty good list of “civilization enders”:

    4 Potential sources of risk
    4.1 Anthropogenic
    4.1.1 Artificial intelligence
    4.1.2 Nanotechnology
    4.1.3 Biotechnology
    4.1.4 Warfare and mass destruction
    4.1.5 Global warming
    4.1.6 Ecological disaster
    4.1.7 World population and agricultural crisis
    4.1.8 Experimental technology accident
    4.2 Non-anthropogenic
    4.2.1 Global pandemic
    4.2.2 Climate change
    4.2.2.1 Ice age
    4.2.3 Volcanism
    4.2.4 Megatsunami
    4.2.5 Geomagnetic reversal
    4.2.6 Asteroid impact
    4.2.7 Extraterrestrial invasion
    4.2.7.1 Fermi paradox
    4.2.8 Cosmic threats

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Intrepid,

      Thanks for posting this! I should have thought of looking at Wikipedia.

      What we want here are people’s personal ranking of their fears. After all, that is a driver of public policy on threat prevention and mitigation. For example, there has been little action on climate change in the U.S. In large part because it ranks so low as a concern of the public.

      Like

  8. If one takes an event horizon of 2050 or so, and somewhat US centric but global view, then here would be my top real concerns.

    1. Unsustainable public debt, which eventually collides with social contracts. Chicago, Illinois, and Medicare are US examples. Greece results. When politicians run out of other people’s money all hell breaks loose.

    2. Peak oil production, which occurs IMO between 2020 and 2025 and really pinches by about 2040. Vehicle electrification and biofuels are inadequate substitutes by then. (Figurated in the last chapter of Gaia’s Limits for the US). Very disruptive to goods distribution and present living patterns. Lots of potential for economic chaos, or worse.

    3. A virulent flu pandemic. We dodged the H1N1 bullet in 2009 only because the strain was not particularly virulent. Ebola showed how incompetent WHO is, and how easy regional outbreaks globalize given aviation. The symptomless but infectious incubation period for flu is ~2-3 days.

    4. Extremism. Lord Reese Boggs first coined the idea of devolution in the 1980’s: the boom in technology since the mid 20th century means military power tips toward small and decentralized, unlike all previous history. RPG’s, Stingers, C4 IEDs, hackers. Destabilizies central governments. We have devolution all over the middle east, Afganistan, and Pakistan. And that stuff is exportable.

    5.Population imbalances. (a) The developed world is aging (Japan, Germany, Greece, US if immigration is contained). Puts pressure on #1. (b) The developing world is the opposite, and except for China birth rates are highest where food resources are already sketchy owing to lack of water or land. They will remain so for many decades because of the youthful demographics, even if birth control becomes more widespread. Syria- 5 million to 23 million in about 30 years. Somalia another example, and that in a failed state since decades. Puts pressure on #4. Global food situation really pinches by about 2050, figurated in Gaia’s Limits.

    6. Amplified Stupidity. By which is meant, all the dubious special interest group claims for this or that amplified without QC by the media, which, when dug into, simply are incorrect. Many examples in The Arts of Truth in fields including energy, healthcare, education, basic science. Science by press release and pal review. Problem is, voters get misinformed. Countries take perhaps well intentioned but fundamentally flawed or useless actions, digging a bigger #1 hole. CAGW and GMO are two current examples. E.g. Greenpeace opposition to Keystone pipeline and to golden rice, partial solutions to #2 and #4(b). Many examples dissected in various Blowing Smoke essays concerning both energy and climate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ristvan,

      I have written quite a bit about most of these, especially the last — “Amplified Stupidity”. But not under that wonderfully descriptive name!

      It is a serious problem in America, which I describe as our inability to clearly see the world — made worse by our gullibility (accepting the exaggerations and lies fed to us). More technically, it is our dysfunctional Observation – Orientation – Decision – Action Loop (OODA loop).

      But Amplified Stupidity says it all.

      Like

    2. Ristvan

      “Amplified Stupidity. By which is meant, all the dubious special interest group claims for this or that amplified without QC by the media”

      I think you’ve hit on something very important – something that I call ‘advocacy culture.’

      There has been a trend in recent decades to encourage self-advocacy in the belief that any given group will be ignored/neglected if they are not championing their own particular interests in public discourse. This is not altogether a bad thing, but there are several problems: –

      1) It leads to a cacophony of self-advocating voices, all competing with each other for public interest and concern, with the accompanying incentive to exaggerate/sensationalise, or just shout the loudest in order to get noticed.

      2) There is an implicit assumption that our society is incapable of identifying, understanding, having concern for or addressing the needs of anyone unless that person becomes part of a politically organised group of similar people in order to draw attention to his/her issues.

      3) In an advocacy culture, those who are not very good/successful at marketing their particular claims versus the claims of other groups tend to become truly invisible. A very extreme example of this is what happened in Rotherham in Northern England from the late 1980’s, where around 1,400 white working class girls, typically between 11-15 years of age, were serially raped and prostituted by gangs of Pakistani men over a period of 15 years or so. The fact is that the various groups who wanted this problem to be ignored were much more effective at advancing their collective interests than were the 11-15 year old white working class girls. Basically, the girls were lousy at modern, organised self-advocacy, and in a society where this is the correct and appropriate way to have your interests and concerns considered they were inevitably going to lose out badly.

      4) In an advocacy culture we feel no duty to take an active and enquiring interest in people who are not in our own group to check whether they have problems that need to be addressed at a collective level because there is simply no need. After all, if there were such problems, the affected people would have formed an advocacy group and so we would already know about them.

      5) The whole thing tends to degenerate into a free-market competition for compassion, which leads to the appeals becoming professionalised and corporatised. I’m not sure true human compassion can actually operate in such a domain, and to the extent it can it is likely itself to become corporatised. Perhaps this is why those who consider themselves most compassionate in our society generally don’t get involved in helping ‘people in need’ directly with their own time, money and effort, but invariably wish to subcontract this duty to some public bureaucracy or other.

      Like

    3. aporiac,

      That’s a great analysis, and timely. Note that the Founders feared this kind of social phenomenon. They called it “factionalism.” Hence the national motto e pluribus unum.

      We have forgotten this, along with so many other basic behaviors necessary to run the Republic. We’re like aircraft pilots that turned on the autopilot, went into First Class to wine and dine — and have forgotten how to fly the plane. Or even that we’re the pilots. We whine about the turbulence, unaware that we should be in the front of the plane.

      Like

  9. I’m particularly fond of Vinay Gupta’s list, from “Reawakening the Enlightenment“:

    “So let me lay out the big threats. There are but two, plus a minor third.

    1) global environmental catastrophe caused by bulk factors like CO2 and deforestation
    2) self-replicating disasters like plagues, bioweapons, genetic engineering and nanotech
    3) nuclear war”

    Vinay rightly points out that “the countries causing most of these risks are democracies,” so ‘m not sure he’d recommend funding them to solve these issues.

    Like

  10. These lists are fascinating, and I generally agree with most of the items listed.

    However I have a different perspective on the nature of our problem — which is the point of this post. Ristvan goes to the heart of the problem by listing “Amplified Stupidity” as a threat.

    I believe it to be the top threat by far because it diminishes our ability to see and effectively respond to risks. We’re gullible, and so easily manipulated by special interest groups. Our ability to remember our history (even recent history, as we “live in the now”) prevents us from learning from experience.

    Scores of posts here have documented these things. It’s a weakness that offsets much of America’s great power.

    Like

  11. Sorry for being late:

    on stage ZERO, above all, I will join Ristvan: “Amplified Stupidity”
    However that goes along with most of the followers:
    Stage ONE: “Islam, ISIS, IS, Al-Qa’ida etcetera and YES: Islam in the first place.”
    Stage TWO: “State – and other Public debts.”
    Stage THREE: “Lots of expressed above, explicitly without the wikipedia list, apart from asteroids impacts, caldera eruptions and the likes.”
    No further anthropogenic stuff as in 1 and 2 is needed.

    Liked by 1 person

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